A Quick Guide to Reading Shakespeare
Tips for Making Sense of Shakespeare's English
by J. M. Pressley, SRC Editor
Probably the number one complaint about reading Shakespeare is that it doesn't always read like "normal" English. It's a natural and legitimate accusation. Shakespeare wrote for an audience over 400 years ago. Think about how word meanings and expressions change over a relatively short time; four centuries bring with them a lot of alterations. For instance, the history of literary English is the history of invasions, with Celtic supplanted by Anglo-Saxon, which was usurped by Norman French (and accentuated with Latin). All of these influences combined to create first Old English, then Middle English, and finally Early Modern English—the language of Shakespeare. And if you compare Shakespeare's works to the Middle English of Chaucer, you can appreciate just how much closer Shakespeare's English is to our contemporary usage.
The Elizabethan era was a particularly volatile growth spurt in the English language. The Renaissance and England's emerging status as a sea power exposed the language to an ever-increasing range of cultures and languages. At the same time, there was no real standardization in English. Formal dictionaries and grammar textbooks simply did not exist, and "proper" education focused much more on classical Latin than on colloquial English. Despite this neglect—or perhaps because of it—English by the reign of Elizabeth had a certain flexibility to it, of which Shakespeare took full advantage.
So how can a reader today bridge that gap between then and now? There are four critical areas to address: word usage, grammar, wordplay, and versification. Once you understand these fundamental concepts, Shakespeare becomes a lot more accessible.
First and foremost, there have been numerous vocabulary changes in English since Shakespeare was writing. While many words are still recognizable today, others have shifted in their meaning or dropped altogether from usage. For example, when was the last time you heard anyone use words such as bodkin (a piercing tool), contumely (verbal abuse), or fardel (a bundle)? There are also conventions such as the informal thou versus the formal you; think of this the same way that tú and usted are used in Spanish, or du and sie in German. Often the context in which a word is used will help you determine its meaning. A Shakespeare edition with good footnotes will help you, as well as a good dictionary. The main thing is to be aware that even a familiar word from today may be used with a different meaning in Shakespeare's works.
This is where the flexibility of Shakespeare's English is often most apparent. Parts of speech are frequently switched, such as nouns or adjectives becoming verbs. Verbs and subjects don't always agree. Words are often omitted in phrases. Word endings such as -ly are inconsistently applied. Shakespeare uses double negatives in spots and phrases such as "most unkindest" with regularity. Even sentence construction can be tricky, with inversions of the basic subject-verb-object order. Whereas we would say, "John caught the ball," Shakespeare might render the same statement with the same meaning as "John the ball caught," or "The ball John caught." As a result, it's important to recognize which part of speech a given word actually represents in a given line.
Some of the most difficult passages of Shakespeare occur when the Bard is purposely playing with language. Metaphors and similes abound in poetic comparisons that can make some passages more complex or difficult to understand. And apparently, Elizabethan audiences loved puns,because Shakespeare wrote them into his plays by the dozens. In a similar vein, many words are used with intentional double meanings. This is especially prevalent in the numerous sexual innuendoes that appear in the works. Malapropisms are another device Shakespeare often uses for comic effect. So not only does the contemporary reader have to interpret surface meanings that may have changed, but also account for the subtext of Elizabethan humor. One key is to look for lines with homonyms or repeated words; those are some of the most common giveaways.
One issue often overlooked is that Shakespeare's plays were written as dramatic literature—meant to be performed and heard aloud, not silently read. That distinction is accentuated where Shakespeare writes in verse. Verse allowed Shakespeare to write lines with a poetic rhythm crafted for the stage. Typically, he wrote in iambic pentameter, which is a fancy way of saying ten-syllable lines that alternate unstressed and stressed syllables (although the pattern varies widely within speeches to avoid sounding monotonous). Shakespeare's verse is written either in pairs of rhymed line endings (couplets), or unrhymed lines (blank verse). Keep in mind that verse and poetic license sometimes force Shakespeare into phrasing that can seem foreign at first glance. Verse is easy to spot by its different margins and capitalization of the first word in each line—keep an eye out for it, and know that you may have to pay more attention to these passages to get at their meaning.
Other Web Resources
The Internet provides a wealth of opportunities for learning more about Shakespeare and his language. Shakespeare High is a good site for teachers and students. The New Folger Library also has online student reading resources. Alexander Schmidt's classic Shakespeare Lexicon is online via the Perseus Digital Library—perfect for looking up all those words like bodkin, contumely, and fardel.
The Essential Shakespeare Handbook, Shakespeare for Dummies, Shakespeare 101